On the Road Again (Part I): Rome

After many months of being stuck close to home because of the corona virus, the ban on interregional travel within Italy was finally lifted in late May. We couldn’t wait to get back on the road again.

The Aventine

We decided to spend a few days in Rome, which is only 3 hours away from here. At the recommendation of several friends, we stayed at a small hotel in the Aventino district.

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Aventino neighborhood

The Aventino is an ancient part of Rome (the Aventine is one of the famous “Seven Hills”) but for a variety of reasons the building of modern Rome has passed it by. Today, it is pleasant residential district, more reminiscent of a leafy suburb than a place less than 20 minutes walk from Piazza Venezia. It’s relatively small, and most of its interesting sights are only a short walk from each other.

Santa Sabina is one of the oldest churches in Rome. Its original 5th C doors feature one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ. Early Christians more commonly featured a lamb (symbolizing Christ) carrying a blank cross, sometimes with a red and white banner signifying the Resurrection. The representation of Christ’s death on the cross has, over the centuries, become dominant, and ever more elaborate. Note that this early Crucifixion scene already features the two thieves.

Not far from Santa Sabina are the headquarters of the Knights of Malta. People are lining up to look through the “Aventine Keyhole,” cleverly designed to allow a surprisingly good view of the dome of St. Peter’s.

Knights of Malta Gate – keyhole view of Vatican

The optical effect is not easily reproduced on a cellphone camera, but you can get a better view of it here.

The Parco Savello, features an orange garden near Santa Sabina offers fine views of Piazza Venezia and the Vatican.

Vatican from Giardino degli Aranci

A short distance further on is the Roseto Comunale, a public rose garden open free of charge, which features over 1,200 varieties of roses. We were lucky to see it because it is open only a few months a year.

The garden was formerly the site of the city’s Jewish graveyard (peremptorily moved by Mussolini). Today, a small cenotaph marks the site’s former use.

Capitoline Museum – Torlonia Marbles

The Capitoline Museum was a pleasant 20 minute walk from our hotel. You never have to walk far in Rome to see ancient structures – some in ruins, some repurposed for more modern uses.

The museum had a special exhibit of the “Torlonia Marbles,” a private collection of ancient Roman statues amassed between the 15th and 19th C, and out of public view for decades.

The portrait busts were particularly amazing, featuring an intense interest in facial expressions that wouldn’t be seen again in European art until the Renaissance. The old farmer, in particular, is someone you could run into today.

A lot of the statues featured heroic themes. But I was more drawn to those featuring more down-to-earth themes: a woman visiting a butcher shop, selecting from a variety of hanging animals, the vendor is also a woman. More sobering was the depiction of two soldiers preparing for hand-to-hand combat – an encounter only one of them was likely to survive.

Most of the statues were collected during a period in which a damaged statue would be “repaired” to make it look as much as possible as the imagined original. The modern preference is to leave the statues in whatever damaged state they are found in. Sometimes the results can be quite startling. This headless goat, whose cranium was replaced by the young Gianlorenzo Bernini, may be better than the original. And the addition of two heads allows you to appreciate an unusual depiction of an affectionate married couple.

Roman Churches

We spent much of the rest of our time in Rome visiting churches, which is where most of medieval and Renaissance art it.

The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli features 15th C frescoes by Pinturicchio.

The basilica of San Clemente features 13th Byzantine-style mosaics and 15th C frescoes by Masaccio. The current church, whose structure dates from the 12th C, is actually the second Christian church on the site. You can visit the remains of the 4th C church below, and below that, the remains of an even earlier pre-Christian temple of Mithra.

The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was not open any time we tried to visit (a frequent hazard of visiting Italian churches, which often have frustratingly short hours). But the elephant said hello.

Elephant at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria in Trastevere offers fine examples of late medieval mosaics. Although the flat perspective is in Byzantine style, some of the subjects (like the birth of Mary, complete with midwives) prefigure the focus on daily life that was to become one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. If you look carefully, you can see that Jesus has his arm draped affectionately around his mother’s shoulder – definitely not Byzantine. Something is happening here in the world of artistic expression.

The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has an astonishing Last Judgment by Pietro Cavallini. The subject is treated in a most unusual manner – along with Mary and John the Baptist, Christ is shown flanked by the 12 Apostles. Cavallini was dismissed by Vasari as a student of Giotto, but the modern view is that the two were independent artists who may have worked together in Assisi. Certainly the humanity and the individualized faces in the Cavallini fresco suggest that the Roman painter was familiar with Giotto’s work. Photos were completely forbidden in the small room where the frescoes now reside – the frescoes were covered over when the medieval church was renovated, and have only recently been rescued. But you can read about them here.

For something completely different, the church of San Ignazio offers a spectacular ceiling fresco in the Baroque style. There’s a lot of Baroque art in Rome, much of it over the top, but the best examples demonstrate a kind of exuberance that I quite enjoy.

San Ignazio

In the relatively unvisited Trastevere church of San Francesco in Ripa, you will find a stunning Bernini quite similar to the more famous Santa Teresa in Ecstasy in the church of Santa Maria di Vittoria. Although I’m sure he could profess piety, I do have to wonder about Bernini’s motivations in creating these masterpieces.

Bernini – San Francesco in Ripa

And of course, you can never get enough Caravaggio. With fewer people about, we were able to get a good shot of The Calling of Saint Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Caravaggio – The Calling of Saint Matthew

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

We did visit one museum in Rome – the museum of “modern art”, which in Rome means anything after about 1800.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Whoever decided how to display the collection had not only a good eye but an unusual sense of humor. I love the way, for example, they arranged 19th C sculptures in the classical style next to very modern pieces.

Ceres (ancient) and (cereal?) bowl (modern)

This statue by Rodin looks with at the painting by Klimt – whether with admiration or shocked surprise, that’s for you to decide.

This painting by Italian impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis offers a familiar theme – a day at the races. But perhaps because De Nittis was a man of southern Italy living in Paris, he remembered to include a depiction of the coal burning heater. Those people were cold!

Giuseppe de Nittis – Le Corse al Bois de Boulogne – 1881

This happy gardener is one of Van Gogh’s sunnier portraits.

Van Gogh – Il giardinere – 1889

We enjoyed these works by Renato Guttoso, a 20th C Sicilian painter.

During the lockdown, we followed a series of online lectures put together by the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. One of the programs featured Giovanni Segantini, a 19th C Italian painter known for Alpine landscapes. Segantini died young and is relatively unknown today. But his depictions of natural landscapes are quite extraordinary – more on him when we get to Milan (Part II).

Segantini – Alla stagna – 1886
Segantini up close

One of the best things about the museum is its location right outside the Villa Borghese, one or Rome’s large parks. After touring the museum, we walked through the park to the Pincio overlook – usually too crowded to get a picture, but not this week.

Baths of Caracalla

Not far from our hotel were the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, a public bath facility that when fully operational served 6000 people a day. In addition to the typical rooms offering hot or cold baths, there was an Olympic size (50 meter) pool for the Roman version of swimming. Although whether they were swimming laps or, more likely, hanging out with their friends is hard to know. But you can still see remnants of an ancient Roman board game, played with marbles, along one edge of the pool

The scale of the place was huge, as you can see from the photo.

Terme di Caracalla

Very little remains of the original decoration. You can see some of the original mosaic floor, and the occasional fresco. But the statuary was carted off by “collectors” over the centuries, including the Torlonias. I include the bust of the Emperor Caracalla from the Torlonia exhibit here so he can look over what still survives of his 1800 year old monument.

Torlonia Marbles – Emperor Caracalla

Did Somebody Say Food?

Of course, we remembered to eat. Here we are at our favorite restaurant in Trastevere, eating cacio e pepe (the bowl is edible cheese, although we didn’t eat it – or at least Linda didn’t).

Until next time!

Dinner at Roma Sparita

A Quiet Christmas in Ascoli

After a summer virtually free of virus concerns, the number of people contracting Covid-19 began increasing in October, reaching scary high levels a few week later. Things started to improve after a lockdown of a few weeks, but to avoid retriggering a new wave over the holidays, the government is imposing a nationwide “red zone” starting December 24 and continuing for most days through January 7. Virtually everything other than stores selling groceries and pharmaceuticals will be closed – no bars, no stores, no restaurants will be open, although you can order food to go. No one can leave their town, except for a very limited number of reasons. Trips outside are limited to essential items. You can take walks for exercise, but not too far from home.

Local officials have made clear that Babbo Natale has been cleared for flight operations and, wearing a mask and keeping his social distance, will be delivering Christmas gifts to those who believe in him and even those who don’t. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve will start at 7:30 pm, to allow everyone to get home by curfew.

Our local fish store is assembling for us the raw ingredients for a traditional “brodetto” (fish stew) for Christmas Eve dinner, complete with his mother’s recipe. The local restaurant where we had hoped to have Christmas lunch is instead creating a holiday meal to go.

Of course, it being Christmas, one cannot forget the panettone (soon to be fully eaten).

And, while there is no Christmas market this year, and no ice skating rink in Piazza Arringo, the town put up its full complement of Christmas lights.

So while it’s a quiet Christmas, it won’t be lacking in Christmas spirit. Maybe that sense of community in sharing a common hardship really IS Christmas spirit.

We can be thankful that nobody close to us has been badly affected by the virus. No one we know has died or been hospitalized, and the small number of people who have tested positive seem to have made full recoveries. Considering the death and hardship that has visited so many this year, we are indeed fortunate.

Now all we can do is wait for the vaccine. The first (tiny) shipment of vaccines in our region is scheduled to arrive next week. The first doses will go to health care providers, people in care homes, and those over 80. After that, folks over 60 (like us) and those younger but with special risk factors will be able to get vaccinated.

The Italian government has never been known for its efficiency. But they have had good communications around vaccine delivery, and they seem to have a plan. So we are cautiously optimistic.

Can’t wait to start traveling again, although these days even a trip to the beach seems like an exotic journey.

Best wishes to you and yours, and let’s all hope for a better 2021.

Sojourning in Sicily

We had been planning to go to Sicily last May, when of course fate took a turn. We were happy to be able to take the trip in late September, when the weather was still good but after the summer crowds had departed.


Palermo, originally settled by Phoenicians in the 8th C BC, was successively inhabited by Greeks, Romans and Arabs until the Normans arrived in the 11th C. Under little over a century of Norman rule, the Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest and most advanced cities in southern Europe.

The Norman Kingdom was multicultural and religiously tolerant, most unusual for medieval Christian Kingdoms. The Palatine Chapel, built by King Roger II around 1140, is decorated with marble inlays and a series of mosaics representing the lives of Christ, St. Peter and St. Paul; the tiles in the mosaics are interspersed with gold to stunning effect. The mosaics are executed in the Byzantine style, in which saints as well as Christ are presented as heavenly figures floating in space, not human beings walking the earth. Nevertheless, you can see attempts at realism in some of the scenes, e.g., Christ entering Jerusalem or St. Paul being baptized.

There are both Latin and Greek inscriptions, reflecting the fact that both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox services were held here.

The coffered ceilings were done by Muslim artisans, and are similar to work done at around the same time in Moorish Spain. Beautiful as it seems, the level of detailed work in this ceiling is quite amazing and can’t be properly admired from the ground. Undoubtedly, it is meant to be observed by a higher authority.

The four-meter high candelabra, with outstanding sculptures by an unknown artist, is almost lost in the magnificence

The nearby church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Martorana, which was built at around the same time as the Capella Palatina, has several interesting mosaics. One depicts a Greek admiral presenting the church to Mary, and another, executed somewhat later, shows Christ crowning King Roger – the first, a symbol of piety, while the second, the divine right of kings personified.

Other Norman-era churches in Palermo included the church of San Cataldo, built as a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to honor returning Crusaders, and the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a monastery built on the site of a former mosque.

After the fall of the Norman dynasty, in the 13th C, Sicily came under French and then Spanish domination. It went into a long economic and cultural decline during what was, in most of the rest of Europe, called the Renaissance.

Sicily’s only Renaissance artist of note was Antonello da Messina, who was one of the first Italian painters to use the new technique of oil painting developed in Flanders. Unfortunately, most of Antonello’s work was lost during the great Messina earthquake of 1908, and only a few of his great works survive today in Sicily.

The first, Mary “Annunciate”, is in a small, not much visited museum in Palermo. I like this version because it eliminates all the standard iconography of Annunciation paintings – angels, birds, lilies – and focuses only on Mary’s face as, disturbed from her reading she is now forced to focus on barely credible heavenly message. (And don’t I love depictions of Mary as an intelligent woman in an era when most women were illiterate).

The second, in an even smaller museum in nearby Cefalù, was long known as the “Anonymous Seaman.” Recent scholarship has pointed out that the sitter’s clothes, while simple, represented the court fashions of the day, and were probably very expensive. We still don’t know who we has, though. So the painting of the man with the enigmatic smile might better be known as “Anonymous Rich Guy.”

Sicily enjoyed a brief period of prosperity during the Baroque era, and there are many churches decorated in Sicilian Baroque style, perhaps best described as “let no space remain undecorated.” The artistry – inlaid marble, painting and sculpture – is outstanding, but the total effect can a bit overwhelming.

Pictured below: The Chiese del Gesù, a depiction of Jonah and the Whale in the church of Santa Caterina, and a statue of St. Joseph in the church of San Giuseppe Teatini.

Somewhat more restrained (and to the modern eye, more pleasing) is the work of sculptor Giacomo Serpotta, who worked in the latter half of the 17th and beginning of the 18th C. Serpotta worked in stucco, normally a very perishable medium. He developed a method of polishing his statues with marble dust, which gave them not only the look of marble but also some of its durability. His real genius, though, was in the fine details of his work, whether in the bravura depiction of the Battle of Lepanto, the faces of children, or a woman’s costly drapery. Note the little lizard on the base of the female statue – a play on the sculptor’s name, which means “little serpent” in Italian. Photos are from the Oratorio di Santa Cita and the nearby Oratorio di San Domenico.


King William II of Sicily, Roger’s grandson, wanted an artistic monument that would rival his grandfather’s in magnificence. So he endowed a cathedral in the small town of Monreale, about 12 km uphill from Palermo. Construction was begun in 1174 and not completed until nearly a century later.

The walls of the cathedral are completely covered in mosaics, representing scenes from the Old and New Testament as well as depicting Christ and various saints.

Christ and the saints are depicted expressionless and floating in space, in traditional Byzantine style. One of the saints depicted is St. Thomas Becket (called Thomas of Canterbury here) – particularly interesting because William II’s wife, Joanna of England, was the daughter of King Henry II, who most likely ordered Thomas’ murder.

There is also the obligatory artistic reference to William’s divine right to rule.

The Biblical scenes have a vibrancy and sense of life not often found in works of this era. More energetic than the Byzantine, but not as realistic as the later work of the Renaissance, the Monreale mosaics are a style all of their own.

The floors are made of inlaid marble with intricate designs, including these whimsical rabbits.

The pavement in the Baroque era chapel, added later, reminded me of Chinese dragons.

We were also able to climb one of the towers for a view of Palermo and the Mediterranean beyond.

Next door to the cathedral is a Benedictine monastery. The cloister has a fountain clearly derived from Arab models.

A particular feature of this cloister are the capitals topping the columns surrounding the central enclosure. Each one is richly carved and completely different from its fellows – it’s almost as if the artists were told they could do whatever they wanted.

Here are some of my favorites: Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, telamons (supporters) executed in typical wacky medieval style, and an early Starbucks.


After leaving Palermo, we travelled across the island to Taormina on the eastern coast of the island. Taormina has a Greek theater, built originally in the 4th C BC. The theater was built on a spit of land extending into the water, in order to take advantage of sea breezes during the hot Sicilian summer (think Candlestick Park without the fog). And as with most Greek theaters, it was built into a natural amphitheater, whose acoustic properties allow patrons sitting in the upper decks to hear the actors on stage.

The theater hosts performances of ancient Greek plays (in modern Italian) for two months every summer. These days, they use modern lighting and sound amplification.

The town has a lovely public park which commemorates, among other things, the successful exploits of Italian minisubs early in World War II. Calling them submarines is rather too generous – they are basically torpedoes with a seating platform, guided by two mariners in scuba gear who would aim the torpedo and then jump out of the way. They managed to sink a British battleship off the coast of Egypt early in the war, but they had limited impact because the Allies got pretty good at bombing them out of the water and the Italians couldn’t make many more of them.

Other than that, Taormina offers little but views, but what views they were, both day and night.


We made our way back across the island along the north coast, and stopped at Cefalù, site of another famous 12th C Norman Cathedral with spectacular mosaics.

We had hoped to spend some time on the beach in Cefalù, but it was a bit too cold and windy for a swim. The anchoring rocks on some of the roof tiles suggested that the wind was not an uncommon occurrence here.

We visited the local art museum, where we saw the Antonello portrait of an unknown man noted above. And in the cases of Greek vases was this remarkable find – instead of the mythical themes usually seen on these vases, there was this depiction of ancient tuna seller.

The next day was much nicer, but the surf was still pretty rough.


We spent the last few days in San Vito lo Capo, west of Palermo, and used it as a base for exploring the northwestern part of the island.

First up was Segesta, a site founded in the middle of nowhere in the 9th C BC by the Elmi people, traditionally identified as refugees from the fall of Troy. They built a temple in the Greek style in the 5th C BC, but it was abandoned, unfinished, in 409 BC when the Elmi left the site to fight a war.

Greek colonists built a town up the hill a few centuries later, but they ignored the temple and situated the town facing the other way, towards the sea, and built the inevitable theater. That town was eventually abandoned too, and given the remoteness of the location no one else came to live here.

As a result, you can see the Temple much as it was left, nearly 2500 years ago. You can even see the stone tabs which were used to move the stones into position (typically, they weren’t removed until the building was almost finished).

You can walk up to the ruins of the Greek town and see the remains of the theater too.

Not far from Segesta is Erice, also built by the Elmi people but these days known for its medieval buildings (including a surprisingly ornate cathedral) and spectacular views.


Mozia is a small island by the west coast of Sicily that was founded as a Phoenician colony in the 8th C BC. It was a prosperous city for several hundred years and was famous for the production of sea salt (just as nearby Trapani is today). It was used as a friendly military base by the Carthaginians (another Phoenician colony) when they invaded in 409 BC (the same war that led to the abandonment of Segesta). Mozia was defeated by the Greeks a couple of decades later, after a long siege, and the conquering Greeks put the entire population of the town to the sword. The town was not rebuilt. By the time of the Punic Wars, several centuries later, the Phoenician/Carthaginian settlement was in Lilybaeum, modern Marsala.

These days the island is basically an archeological site, where you can still see the remains of the once-impressive fort and the floor mosaics of an ancient villa. There is also a small museum where you can see examples of Phoenician pottery, and a marvelous statue of a Greek charioteer, discovered on the island in 1979.

On the short ferry ride to the island, you can see some of the salt flats for which Trapani is famous.

In nearby Marsala, you can see the “Nava Punica,” an imaginative recreation of a Carthaginian naval vessel sunk during the Punic Wars.

San Vito lo Capo

We finally got a beach day on the last day of our trip.

Sicilian Food

One of the glories of traveling in Sicily is the fantastic food. We don’t have as many photos of food as you might think, since the food was so good we were usually finished eating it before we could snap a photo.

A favorite local specialty was Couscous Trapanese, a kind of stew made with couscous, fish and vegetables, served with a tomato fish broth that you poured over the couscous to your taste. It has something in common with the Spanish paella, the French bouillabaisse, and the Moroccan tagine, but is a dish all its own. Each restaurant made a slightly different version. One variation which we particularly enjoyed included chopped up almonds, which gave the couscous a crunchy, toasty flavor.

The wines are pretty interesting here too. They are largely made from grape varieties particular to Sicily. The whites are made from Cattarato, Grillo, or Zibbibo grapes, while perhaps the most prestigious white appellation, Etna Bianco, uses a Cattarato/Carricante blend. All of these are crisp, low in a alcohol, and work well with fish. Reds are usually made from Nerello Mascalese (very much like Pinot Nero) and Nero d’Avola (which makes a very strong wine). But you can also find a very nice intermediate-body wine called Cerasuola di Vittoria which is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Look for it.

We didn’t forget the cannoli.

Although we ate mostly fish on this trip, one of the best meals we had was in a meat oriented restaurant near Segesta. On leaving the temple, it wasn’t immediately obvious where we were going to eat, since as noted it’s in the middle of nowhere. So we decided to try the place suggested in a flyer someone had left in our windshield. This place was really off the beaten track – 5 km on unpaved roads – but we’ve lived in Italy long enough to know that if a restaurant can survive in the middle of nowhere, it was probably pretty good. We were not disappointed, and Ted finally got the rabbit he had been searching for.

We didn’t get photos of the food, but here’s a shot from the front of the restaurant, indicating just how remote this place was.

And here we are after a wonderful 10 days in Sicily.

On the Road Again

Italy began lifting its lockdown restrictions in mid-May, and in early June the ban on traveling between Italian regions was removed.  That didn’t mean you could immediately go anywhere – flights to Sicily, where we had originally planned to go, won’t resume until the end of the month.  But the uneven end of the lockdown provided a golden opportunity to visit popular sites at a time when not not many foreign tourists would be around.

So as soon as we could, we were on the road again.


When we arrived in Venice, on a Wednesday evening, the city was so empty as to be almost desolate. We have been to Venice in low season before, trading off the shorter days and sometimes bad weather of late winter to avoid the huge high season crowds.  But this was different.  Smaller hotels were open, but many of the larger ones were not.  Many shops and restaurants were open, but a surprising number remained closed.  The Basilica of San Marco was closed to tourist visits, although you could still attend mass or visit the loggia upstairs.  And the Piazza San Marco, normally teeming with tourists, shoppers and vendors, was practically empty.  The Cafe Florian, the iconic coffee bar in the middle of the Piazza, was closed when we arrived.  Even the pigeons seemed to have temporarily deserted the place.


Fortunately, things improved over the course of our 4-day visit.  By Friday, the Cafe Florian had reopened (although their coffee was still too expensive to actually consider buying).  By Saturday, a few souvenir vendors had returned to the Piazza, but they were the licensed kiosks, not the guys selling “irregular” merchandise spread out on the street.  Even a few pigeons had ventured back.  And more shops and restaurants opened their doors.


The number of tourists increased each day, too, and by Saturday there was a line to get in to the Doge’s Palace (although it didn’t look very long).  Most of the tourists were Italian, including many families, taking the opportunity, like we were, to rediscover their own cities as they were in a quieter era.

Venice, like most parts of Italy, does not require people to wear masks outdoors, and the social distancing requirement is only 1 meter (about 3 feet).  You are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces – hotel lobbies, churches, museums, stores.  They are required in bars and restaurants, but you can take them off as soon as you are seated and, given the fine weather, we took most of our meals outside.  You are also required to wear them on public transportation, although on the 40-minute trip to Burano, those of us sitting outside took our masks off.

Aside from that tiny act of civil disobedience on the boat, compliance with the masking rules was quite high. We saw one guy take his mask off inside a church, admiring a Tintoretto, when the custodian, a young woman, came over and politely asked him to put it back on. “Later,” he said.  When she asked a second time, still politely, the guy looked around at the other visitors giving him the stinkeye, and realized he was at risk of making a “brutta figura,” which literally means “cutting a bad figure,” but actually means “embarrassing yourself by acting like a jerk.”  And no Italian wants to do that.  He put the mask back on.

I do wonder, though, how Venice and other big cities are going to enforce the social distancing requirements on public transportation, which means leaving every other seat vacant, when there are more visitors.


Carpaccio: Panel from Legend of St. Ursula (restoration finally complete!)

We visited the Accademia, Venice’s largest art museum where we were able to spend time with the works of Bellini, Veronese and Carpaccio in uncrowded rooms.  We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum.  We don’t always like museums devoted to modern art, but Guggenheim selected her pieces according to her personal taste, and makes a convincing case for her selections.   Even Jackson Pollock’s strange abstractions look more organized when paired with Peggy’s wrought-iron windows.  And Peggy’s placement of modern abstract pieces next to contemporary African art is also very interesting – she knows exactly where the inspiration for the European works is coming from, and she wants you to know it too.


Magritte: La voce dell’aria (at the Guggenheim)

We took a guided tour of the Casa Bartoli, a 16th C structure which, much renovated, was a private residence until the owners died a few years ago.  The house was elegant, but comfortable, and had killer views of the Grand Canal and the church of Santa Maria della Salute across the way.  (The church, whose name means Our Lady of Good Health, was built by the city in gratitude for surviving the second coming of the Black Death in the 17th C – a story that had unexpected resonance in these pandemic times.)


Casa Bortoli interior


Casa Bortoli: Fantastic chandelier


The Salute Church from Casa Bortoli

We even took a gondola ride, for the first time in many years.  Without the big cruise ships in the lagoon, you could venture out into the canal in a gondola without fear of being swamped.


Mostly, though, we enjoyed just walking the streets of Venice, being able to travel side by side instead of single file for once.  Most of the restaurants we have enjoyed in the past were open, and doing good business, but they had time to talk to us.  So did our gondolier, the folks running our hotel, and shopkeepers.  They all wanted tourists back – just maybe not so many of them.

Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are five spectacularly sited villages along the Ligurian coast.  Although there are some roads, the towns are connected mainly by hiking trails and a rail line.  We had never been to this part of Italy before, since we had heard that it was often crowded during high season and the hiking season is short (it’s not really a place you can visit during the winter).


The villages are as beautiful as advertised. From our base in Monterosso, we enjoyed hiking to Vernazza and then Corniglia, and we visited a fourth town (Manarola) by train.  We even got in a little beach time.  All in all, though, I’m not sure we would have enjoyed it so much had it been more crowded.



We have been to Lucca before, some years ago, but again, it seemed like a good time to revisit this popular city.  Lucca has a very old cathedral (started in the 11th C) and very fine city walls, which you can walk around. But the highlight of this trip was our visit to Villa Reale di Marlia, a few miles outside the city.

Villa Reale was the country residence of Elisa Baciocchi, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was named Princess of Lucca after her brother conquered much of northern Italy.  Elisa restored the 17th C manor house, and completely redesigned the gardens in the style of English country houses (including very large lawns, unusual in Italy).  After Napoleon was deposed, the house was sold to a succession of new owners, who maintained the magnificent gardens but allowed the manor house to fall into disrepair.  The house has recently been restored by an anonymous Swiss couple who fell in love with the place and clearly spared no expense to restore the house to its original Napoleonic splendor.  It is spectacular, and we highly recommend a visit here to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of Lucca.

Travel in the post Covid era

How has travel changed in the post Covid era?

The first and most obvious difference is that we took our car instead of the train.  Neither of us minds wearing a mask during a visit to a church or museum, or on a short trip on a bus or train.  But wearing one continuously for 5 or 6 hours seems a bit much.  I can’t even imagine a transAtlantic flight under those conditions.

Going to a restaurant where all the waiters are masked is a little weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

One less obvious casualty of the pandemic is the hotel buffet breakfast. The hotel we stayed at in Venice used to offer breakfast, but their breakfast room was so tiny they could not comply with the new social distancing requirements.  So they no longer offer breakfast, and have adjusted their room rates accordingly.  Given that the hotel was situated within 5 minutes walk of at least half a dozen cafes, including an excellent pastry shop literally outside the door, this was no hardship.

The other two hotels we stayed at continued to offer a buffet style breakfast.  You could see everything on offer, but you had to ask a hotel staff member to get it for you and put it on your plate.   In some ways, that’s a good thing – you will probably be too embarrassed to ask for that second piece of pastry you didn’t need anyway.  But some might be less willing to try an unfamiliar local specialty – deviled eggs in Turkey, or spinach with pine nuts in Spain, which would be too bad.

The Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice is currently operating an an advance reservation basis – you go to the website and select a date and an entry time.  I think this is a great idea for small museums, which can sometimes be unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  The Galeria Borghese in Rome has been doing this for several years now.  It requires a bit of advance planning, but it makes your visit to these smaller museums much more enjoyable.  I hope it’s a permanent change.

On Being Recognized as an Italian Citizen


During the months of planning for our move to Italy, I discovered that I was, under Italian law, actually an Italian citizen.

Under the law of the United States (and, as it happens, the Roman Empire), citizenship is a matter of geography.  If you are born in the United States,  you are a citizen of the United States, regardless of the citizenship of your parents. In some European countries, however – including Italy – citizenship is a matter of ancestry.  If your father or mother was an Italian citizen when you were born, then you are an Italian citizen, regardless of where you were born.

My grandfather emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1912.  Since my father was born in 1917, before my grandfather became a naturalized American and renounced his Italian citizenship in 1924, that means my father was an Italian citizen (although I doubt he ever knew that).  And that means I have been an Italian citizen since birth, although until recently I didn’t know that either.

Since this type of citizenship operates automatically, and not by choice, under US law I can “recognize” my Italian citizenship without giving up my US citizenship.

As you might imagine, going through the recognition procedure requires collecting quite a lot of paper — not all of it easily obtained decades after the events.

I thought locating my grandfather’s Italian birth certificate would it be difficult, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy.  Although he was born in a tiny town in the Abruzzo, a forward-looking city administration had actually put its old documents online, which meant they were easily searchable.

My father’s birth certificate was more problematic.  Although he was born in the US, his birth certificate was filled with spelling errors, including my last name.  My father was born at home and my grandfather likely went to the city records office to obtain a birth certificate.  My grandfather spoke English with a heavy accent, and county clerks in any event didn’t know much about Italian names in those days.  I was told that I could have the document corrected if I could provide a baptismal certificate.  Using Google, we located a church in the Arthur Avenue area of the Bronx which appeared to be only a few blocks from where my father was born.  Sure enough, they were the right church — they provided my father’s baptismal certificate, which spelled my last name correctly, and we were then able to get the city of New York to issue a corrected birth certificate.

As it turned out, though, I couldn’t change my father’s first name. My father was christened Antonio although he went through life as Anthony.  Apparently teachers in those days didn’t have much patience for “foreign” names and arbitrarily changed them to something more “American” – something that thankfully wouldn’t happen today.  We were able to resolve that problem, too, by getting an “also known as” certificate from the state of Florida, where my dad lived for the last 30 years of his life.

We also needed to provide a copy of my parent’s marriage certificate.   That wasn’t so easy either.  My parents hadn’t had a church wedding – all I knew was that they had eloped.  An older friend suggested I try the records of Elkins Park, Maryland, which she said had been a favorite destination for eloping couples in the 1950s.  Bingo.

After we collected all the documents, we had to have them verified using apostilles (basically an international notarization form) and then translated.  We took these documents to the vital records office here in Ascoli, where the woman in charge reviewed the documents, then sent request letters out to the various Italian consulates in the US verifying that they had no contrary information.

This whole process took months.  Once my application was approved, though, things moved amazingly quickly.  I went down to City Hall and had my birth and marriage “registered” in the town records.  The town hall used special oversized paper which hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages (although they use printers now instead of pen and ink).  Within a week, I had a new Identity Card, identifying me as an Italian citizen, which basically entitles me to live (and work) anywehere in the EU.  My new status also enables Ted to apply for a “carta di soggiorno” (essentially, a [ermanent green card which doesn’t have to be renewed every two years).

Why did I do this?  There are no tax benefits — Italy taxes legal residents essentially the same as Italian citizens.  The main benefit is administrative.  Like many European countries, Italy is now tightening up its requirements for foreign residents.  Non-residents have to renew their permessi di soggiorno  (visas) every two years, and the language requirements and hard to define “integration” requirements seem to be getting tougher.  We could most likely pass the current tests, but who knows what new requirements may be coming down the pike? And it is easier not to have to worry about dealing with the Italian bureaucracy any more than is necessary.  This way, we can come and go as we please.

And I now have two passports!  I feel like an international money-launderer.


Lecce and Matera


With the arrival of spring, we decided to drive down to Lecce, about 5 hours south of here, in the little-visited (by Americans) province of Puglia.

Lecce is not located on the coast or on a navigable river, somewhat surprising for an ancient city.  It turns out that it has access to an underground water source, an important consideration in a region where the availability of sufficient water has always been an issue.

Lecce affiliated itself pretty early with the ultimately victorious Romans, and it was a thriving city during the ancient Roman empire.  After the fall of Rome, it was associated for a while with the Byzantine empire, and eventually became part of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.


The city is known for its many baroque churches built in the local golden-color stone.  Many of the statues are in “cartapesta” (what we would call papier-mache) a surprisingly durable and lifelike material.  The tradition of working in “cartapesta” remains vibrant today, and there are little shops all over the city featuring the work of contemporary local artists.

Lecce Duomo - Immaculate conception chapel

Some of the city’s older churches, like SS.  Nicolo e Cataldo, were remodeled during the Bourbon era but retained some of their late-Byzantine-era frescoes, a unique combination.  There is very little art of the time in between those two eras here.  It’s almost as if the Renaissance occurred in some other country — which, in some sense, it did.

We saw more Byzantine frescoes at the abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate, just outside of town, which recently reopened after a major restoration.  The restored colors on the interior frescoes, so different from the more typical faded colors, challenge your conceptions about what these frescoes are “supposed” to look like.

We took a short day trip to Otranto, a pleasant seaside town near the end of the heel of Italy’s boot.  We were lured into a local restaurant by the promise of  “ricci,” fresh sea urchin.  I was introduced to ricci near Bari, on my first trip to Italy so many years ago.  Over the years, I have eaten them in Japan (where they are known as uni), California and France, but nowhere are they as fresh as they are in Puglia. Many people eat them raw, right out of their spiny shell. But eating them as we did, with pasta, is also popular.

Otranto also has an old and very historic Cathedral.  In this case, the cathedral floors are covered in mosaics from the 12th Century and mostly tell bible stories.

We visited the lighthouse just south of Otranto, which is the most easterly point in Italy.  (Not quite the most southerly, though — Italy continues for about an hour south of Otranto).  The Adriatic is at its narrowest point here, which in less orderly times made Otranto the frequent victims of raiders and pirates (hence the lookout castle on the seaside).  These days, the narrowness of the channel makes for some fabulous views — on a clear day, you can see Albania.



After leaving Lecce, we went to Matera, in the even less-frequently-visited province of Basilicata.  If you think of Italy as a boot, Basilicata is the arch between the toe and the heel.

Matera has been inhabited since Neolithic times, largely due to its combination of natural caves and an easily defensible location (a fertile valley surrounded by steep mountains).  By the Middle Ages, Matera was a thriving small town, albeit one where the dwellings were inside instead on top of the rocks.  Whole communities developed in these grottoes, including not only churches but also monasteries and convents with several subterranean levels.  Beginning in the later Middle Ages, the more prosperous citizens started living on top of the rocks, but most of the city’s population still lived in the “Sassi” — the grottoes below.


The city went into decline during the later Bourbon period, when the provincial capital was moved.  The middle class departed, and the people of the Sassi became poorer.  By the late 19th C, the divided city featured wealthy people living in the sun in the upper city, and thousands of the less well off living essentially below ground, deprived of sunlight, fresh air, and modern sanitation, like something out of Blade Runner.

In the 1940s, Carlo Levi, a political opponent of Mussolini, was sentenced to internal exile near here.  After the war, he wrote a book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which among other things highlighted conditions in the Sassi and scandalized the nation. The inhabitants of the Sassi were moved out of their rock dwellings, some to new apartment buildings in town, and others (less successfully) to new “farming villages” a few miles away.   The old grotto buildings, including the cave churches , were allowed to sink into disrepair.

By the 1980s, Italians were taking a fresh look at the city and its unique artistic heritage.  The city was named a UNESCO heritage site in the 1990s, and has been named a European “capital of culture” for 2019 — marketing designations that have brought restoration attention and tourist dollars into the economy.  Today, about 4,000 people are living in the Sassi again (in dwellings now fitted out with modern conveniences).   About half a dozen cave churches have now been restored, with more in process.  You can even stay in a luxury hotel built right into the grottoes (although we didn’t.)

Rupestrian (cave) church in the Sassi

The city has also had some success marketing itself as a movie site.  Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and other Bible-themed movies have been filmed here, since the city’s narrow stone streets and deep ravines make it a plausible substitute for Jerusalem.

Who knows what the future holds for Matera?  Historically, attempts to base a local economy on tourism often founder when too many people want to come to a very small place.  For the time being, though, Matera is just far enough off the beaten track, and just hard enough to get to, that a visitor won’t be overwhelmed.


Venice in the Snow

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


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

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


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



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

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

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

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


Of Kitsch and Kin (Salzburg and Turkey)

April 2011

Ted and I recently got back from a 16-day trip to Salzburg, Istanbul, and southwest Turkey, with a couple of days in Munich at the beginning and end. We hadn’t been to any of those places before, other than Munich. Here are our thoughts.

Additional photos are available here.


Salzburg spent centuries as an independent province, ruled by a Prince-Archbishop who was essentially an absolute ruler. Its wealth was based on its being located almost literally on top of a salt mine (“Salzburg” means “salt mountain”) and later, a gold mine. Perhaps because its wealth was based on selling its assets,rather than trade, it’s never been particularly welcoming to outsiders. Over the years, the city has kicked out its Jews, its Protestants, and Mozart, and it doesn’t seem to have lost its insular character.

After the fall of Napoleon, the city became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the mid-19th Century, the city fathers had the bright idea of reinventing Salzburg as a tourist destination, which was pretty far-sighted for the time. By the 1890s, they had built a funicular to their hilltop castle, and the Salzburg Music festival (started in the 1920s) and refurbished Mozart sites have proven durable tourist draws. The whole place functions as sort of an Alpine Disneyland – every hotelier will offer you a “Salzburg card” offering discounted or free access to a designated list of “tourist attractions.” You can visit the salt mine, take a ride on the “dancing boats,” take a bus tour of the Sound of Music film locations, or even visit Berchtesgaden, just over the German border.

But the real E-ticket ride is Hellbrun, a hunting lodge/pleasure palace built just outside the city by a 17th Century Archbishop. The grounds include a plethora of trick fountains where the Archbishop amused himself by soaking his helpless guests (while he, of course, remained dry) – a dubious entertainment replicated by modern tour guides. The gardens also feature spinning mermaids, rocking dragons, scandalously-tongued demons and hyperactive villagers – Small World on acid.

In the 17th Century, the fountains and mechanical figurines were powered solely by hydraulics, not electricity. What might those clever artisans have achieved had they devoted that ingenuity towards making labor-saving machines rather than Prince’s toys.

Autocracies and progress don’t mix.


After the artificiality of Salzburg, it was something of a relief to arrive in Istanbul, which is certainly a real city. As recently as the 1950s, Istanbul had a population of barely over a million. Today, it’s 12 million, with growth fueled both by population inflows and geographic expansion – the city has absorbed a number of formerly independent fishing villages on either side of the Bosporus.

We stayed in Sultanahmet, the historic district, which turned out to be a good thing, since most of the historic sites were located within walking distance of our hotel. Traffic is awful, so it takes a while to get around no matter what kind of transportation you use.

Together with our friends Mike and Trine, who were visiting Istanbul at the same time, we hired a guide for the first two days. That turned out to be a good decision too, not only because he could (legally) cut the lines, but also because he was very well-informed. Being a guide is a professional service in Turkey – it takes at least a year of study (including a six-month training course) to pass the licensing exam. Hakan, a graduate of Northwestern, spoke excellent English, even though, as it turned out English was only the third of his five languages.

We began our trip with the Aya Sofya, which was built in the 6th Century as the “Hagia Sophia” (church of Holy Wisdom). When Mehmet conquered the city, he repurposed the church as a mosque and covered over the mosaics that depicted human figures. The mihrab, or prayer niche, is off-center, to correct for the fact that Christian altars are oriented towards Jerusalem while mihrabs are directed towards Mecca. hIn the 1930s, the Aya Sofya was converted to a museum, and it is no longer used for religious services. Subsequently, the government began the long, painstaking project of removing the plaster from the Byzantine mosaics, so now many of them can be seen, once again, as they were in the Christian era.

Upstairs, one of the mosaics, done by an unknown artist in the 10th or 11th Century, depicts a compassionate-looking Mary trying to convince Jesus not to condemn too many people to eternal hellfire – a couple of centuries before the “humanistic” depiction of Biblical figures was supposedly “invented” by Italian artists. Did one of the Crusaders sacking Constantinople send back a sketch to his cousin back in Italy? Possibly – Sienese and Florentine Madonnas show clear Byzantine influence. More likely, it’s another demonstration of how artistic change, even revolutionary change, rarely occurs just once.

Here’s a photo of the compassionate Mary, followed by with another more “traditional” Byzantine mosaic.

The Blue Mosque, just across the road, uses a multiple-dome structure to create a sense of internal lightness and space that the medieval cathedral builders strove in vain to achieve. Later in the day, we heard the Blue Mosque muezzin call to prayer – a very strange sound to ears tuned to Western scales. These days, the muezzins no longer have to climb the scary-looking minarets – they stay inside and benefit from modern amplification. But the centuries-old chants themselves remain the same.

The Blue Mosque

The next day, we visited the Topkapi Palace, whose Treasure House includes a selection of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious gems that rivals the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London (alas, no photos permitted). To my surprise, the diamond dagger which features in the movie Topkapi actually exists, and is on display. The harem was rather more extensive than I had supposed (nearly 1,000 people lived there, including children). Most poignant was the “Gilded Cage,” the apartments of the Crown Prince and presumptive heir. The Sultanate did not follow primogeniture; when a Sultan died, the first son to seize the crown (usually by killing off all his brothers) was the next Sultan. As a result, the sons of the Sultans were often kept in a form of protective custody within the palace walls – not a recipe for enlightened government.The rooms are, however, beautifully decorated, including some outstanding stained glass:

The Galata Tower, in the “new” section of the city, offers a fine view.  In the 17th Century, a young man built a flying machine based on the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci.  He took off from the Tower, and according to eyewitnesses successfully crossed the Bosporus, a distance of about 6 kilometers – the world’s first successful flight.  The Sultan at first wanted to reward him, but later thought better of it and exiled the unfortunate young man to Algeria.

Autocracies and progress don’t mix.


We flew from Istanbul to Izmir (formerly Smyrna) and drove down to Alaçati, on the Çeşme Peninsula.

From there, we took a day trip to Ephesus, which was described in the guidebooks as Roman ruins “second only to Pompeii.”  Having seen Pompeii, I would reverse the order.

Pompeii was a prosperous town, but Ephesus was a city.  At its peak, in the 2nd Century AD,  the city had a  quarter of a million inhabitants, making it the 3rd or 4th largest city in the Roman Empire (and larger than many Western European cities would be from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance).  Only about 20% of the city has been excavated, but you can still get a sense of how large it was.


Ephesus was settled as an Ionian (Greek) colony in the 6th Century BC.  The Temple of Artemis, just outside the city, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (today, all that’s left of the temple is a single column, sitting in what is now a marsh).   This “Artemis” was not the huntress Diana of the Romans, but the ancient multi-breasted fertility goddess of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The city was a crossroads of the ancient world. Antony and Cleopatra hung out there. Public buildings in bear the names or imprints of Roman emperors Domitian, Trajan and Nero, as well as local consuls (the library of Celsus, shown above) and freed slaves made good.  St. Paul spent time there (although he was run out of town because of his disparagement of the still-popular Artemis). And the Apostle John is believed to have died there, along with (according to legend) the Virgin Mary. The attribution of a 1st Century house, 6 km up the hill, to Mary is probably apocryphal, but the site has been visited by three Popes (not to mention the Virgin Mary Taxi Service) and is now a Christian pilgrimage site.  It seems oddly appropriate that a shrine to Mary would exist not far from a place where an ancient goddess was held in special esteem.

In the late Roman period, the harbor silted up, and the city went into a long and ultimately fatal decline. In the 6th Century, the remaining citizens retreated to a nearby hilltop, where they built a citadel and a basilica dedicated to Saint John.  The basilica is now a ruin, although you can still see the immersion pool used for baptism (rather different from the baptismal founts in Western European churches).  Eventually, the city fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, “Seljuk” being derived from the Turkish name for Saint John – Aya Soluk.

Çeşme Peninsula

We spent the remaining three days exploring the Çeşme Peninsula.  Çeşme was once an important Ottoman naval port, but these days it’s mostly a summer resort area, with a tiny year-round population. Its coastline is still relatively unspoiled, although the number of construction cranes suggests this will not last for long.

We have visited many lovely small hotels with the help of TripAdvisor, but never have we received such a warm welcome as that provided by Sabahat and Poshor and their helpful staff at Incirliev in Alaçati. Sabahat and Poshor have reconstructed a true Aegean stone house in the old style but with modern building techniques and conveniences. Our room, the Terrace Room, was exceptional and had all the facilities that one could want in a small hotel. The “encircled garden” with its fig tree, almond tree, mulberry tree, and citrus is a small paradise. However, the true wonder of this hotel is Sabahat, who welcomes you every morning for the wonderful breakfast (with Poshor’s scrumptious natural jams), helps plan your day, recommends the best restaurants, and meets you at the end of the day with tea and delicious cakes. Or, on occasion, Poshor might meet you in the evening for a tasting of his excellent Turkish wine collection. Both Sabahat and Poshor exemplify the character of the Turkish people we met on our trip: warm, generous, and gregarious.

For those of you who must stay connected, Incirliev offers high-quality, free Internet wifi.

The Çeşme peninsula is full of natural beauty and it is easy to drive places where there is no one within a kilometer. However, it is also a place where there is seemingly unbridled development. We were there in mid-April, and most of villages and towns were desolate and empty. It seems that the population multiplies 10 or 20-fold in summer, in which case the towns and beaches might feel like Istanbul. There are many “unowned” dogs and cats left in the streets, presumably by summer visitors since they are quite tame and friendly. They must have a source of food since they don’t seem particularly ravenous. If you are nervous about such animals, be forewarned.

There are a limited number of historic sites to visit on the Çeşme peninsula. So, it is perhaps a better place to relax, swim (in season), or wind-surf (if you are so inclined).  On one day we visited Ephesus (see above — about 100 mi, 1.5-1.75 hours driving).  Sabahat arranged a very good guide for 120 TL per day, well worth it.  Ephesus was spectacular, but I imagine that it might get hot and crowded in summer. Pergamom is a bit farther, but on worse roads … so perhaps 2.5-3 hours.  We didn’t go there.

On the peninsula, we visited the ruins of the ancient Greek village of Erythrai.  The most recognizable building was the theater, built, in the Greek manner, right up against the hillside.   This method of construction created a natural amphitheatre – you can sit at the top and hear someone speaking in a natural tone of voice at the bottom, without artificial amplification.  (The Greeks may not have had our technological expertise, but they weren’t stupid.)  Despite its age and historical interest, the site’s remote location means you have it all to yourself (at least in the spring).  From the upper rows of the theater, you can see a landscape populated only by sheep, goats, donkeys and the occasional herder, much as it was in ancient days.Mid-April is often warm and sunny, but for us it was showery, windy, sometimes stormy, and quite cool (never above 15C). The sun came out on the day we left, and the place took on a quite different, and distinctly happier, character.

Alaçati is an engaging small town with small a year-round population.  Like much of what we saw in Çeşme, Alaçati seems to be in transition from a sleepy rural village to a tourist destination. There is much (re)construction going on that is carefully controlled by the town, but construction generally stops in mid-June for the summer visitors. There are nice restaurants to be visited, but none of the elegant variety you might find in Istanbul (although such places might open during summer). If you stay at Incirliev, pay attention to Sabahat’s recommendations. On one occasion we strayed from her advice and regretted it. Sabahat recommended one fish restaurant in nearby Dalyan where the Levrek (Sea Bass) was the best I’ve had anywhere. The food in this area is truly Mediterranean: lots of fruits, vegetables and greens, careful use of spices, many herbs, lots of fish, and a little meat. Although “organic” food is not really a concept here, the food is naturally organic in a more fundamental sense. I would not be surprised to soon see Turkish food from this region appear on the “foodie” radar.

Driving in the Çeşme peninsula is quite easy. There is a 6-lane modern toll-road that traverses the peninsula. Toll is taken on exit by means of a KGS toll card which can be bought or recharged at machines prior to exiting the roadway. There was no cash lane on the toll roads on Çeşme or south from Izmir. Cash is being phased out in the entire Turkish road network. However, the tolls are not high (2 TL for ~60 km). Avis sold us a KGS card at 2X the price. Gas/diesel is expensive, but there are sufficient stations in the populated areas and (American) credit cards are generally accepted. Non-toll roads are well maintained as well (although pothole increase as population decreases). Parking is, however, not well marked and the legality of any given parking space is hard to determine. I did not try to drive in any cities. Airport car dropoff at Izmir was the easiest I’ve experienced at any airport anywhere. I called Avis, and a guy came to meet me at the (International) arrivals level.

Don’t expect to carry-on a bag weighing more than 8 kg at Izmir. This was the only such restriction on our SFO-FRA, MUC-IST, IST-ADB, ADB-MUC, MUC-ORD-SFO itinerary.

General Impressions of Turkey

We had never been to a Muslim country before, so we weren’t sure what to expect.

The streets of Istanbul are almost as crowded as those of New York City, and there are lots of children – particularly noticeable after Europe’s sclerotic urban centers.  The streets are remarkably clean, and we didn’t see any obviously homeless people or child beggars, making Istanbul a more modern-looking city than some “European” ones like Naples.

We didn’t really have a language problem in Turkey, since most people affiliated with the tourist industry spoke at some English. Turkish is a non-Indo-European language, whose closest linguistic relatives (and they’re not that close) are Finnish, Hungarian and, believe it or not, Japanese.  That means there are no cognates, except for yogurt (a Turkish word), and the occasional word “borrowed” from French or English for stuff that didn’t exist before the 19th Century.

The Ottomans used Arabic script to represent Turkish sounds. Ataturk converted to Western letters, but that doesn’t help Western tourists that much, since words often aren’t pronounced the way we’d expect.  (Parenthetically, it also means that modern Turks can’t read Ottoman documents without special study.)

Other than the language, we were struck by how similar the city was to many we have visited in Europe.  Admittedly, we were in the most “Westernized” parts of the country, and things might have been different had we visited the interior. But our general impression was how similar Turkey was to [the rest of] Europe, not how different.

Anatolia was part of the ancient Greco-Roman world, and evidences of that ancient culture were evident in the art, the architecture, public buildings like baths, even the food (of which more below). Although Turkey is 98% Muslim, it is officially a secular country – its public holiday is Sunday, not Friday. And although there were lists of clothing rules posted outside the mosques (including a request for “ladies” to wear headscarves), the only rule that seemed to be enforced was the one asking people to remove their shoes (to protect the rugs). It was less trouble getting into the Blue Mosque than St. Peter’s, which has a phalanx of “clothing police” who will actually deny entry to the improperly dressed.

Although a number of women wore headscarves, here they were mostly silk or cotton kerchiefs, not the confining garments of other parts of the Muslim world. Full burqas are rare, and worn mostly by tourists from other Muslim countries. (In fact, I saw as many burqa-wearing women in Salzburg as I did in Istanbul).

The food in general was pretty good, and quite a bit more varied then the ubiquitous “doner kebab” restaurants would suggest. The fish, in particular, was outstanding. The yogurt was thick and wonderful (probably most similar to the Greek yogurt you can sometimes find in the US). A variety of fresh-squeezed fruit juices were available – including unusual varieties like pomegranate and cherry. Turkey, it turns out, is one of the world’s leading cherry producers.

In Istanbul, a number of restaurants were presenting “Ottoman cuisine,” which was generally meat stews (beef or lamb, no pork) with fruit, gently flavored with spices – something like Moroccan cuisine, but with more subtle flavors.

The food in the Çeşme Peninsula was like a textbook version of “Mediterranean cuisine” – lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (artichokes!), wonderful nuts, and fresh local fish cooked in olive oil, with rice as the basic starch.  The sea bass at one local restaurant, picked from a display of fish that had probably been purchased from a local fisherman that morning, was served grilled with fresh local greens. It  doesn’t get much better than that.

Turkey seems to be a busting, growing nation. There is universal admiration for Kemal Ataturk, and every town has its Ataturk Bulvari much like our major (US) streets bear the name of Washington and Lincoln. The military keeps garrisons (and armed watches) in more public places that one might expect. Although there are mosques everywhere, there seems to be as much diversity in the practice of Islam in Turkey as in the practice of Christianity in the US.

Somewhat to our surprise, since Turkey is a Muslim country, alcohol was readily available. The most popular drink is “raki”, a local version of the anise-flavored liquors (Greek ouzo, French pastis, Syrian arrack) that have been drunk all over the Mediterranean for centuries.

Even more surprisingly, Turkey also has a wine industry. Since Turkish wine consumption is miniscule (about 1 liter per person per year) most Turkish wine is exported to the UK or northern European countries. But production methods are modern, and the local wine offered by many restaurants was pretty good, though it was made from unpronounceable grape varietals that aren’t even mentioned in Ted’s wine encyclopedia.

Turkey’s biggest asset, however, may be its hospitable people. Turks are naturally gregarious, more like New Yorkers than typical Europeans. It won’t take long for the person sitting next to you on a plane or train to start up a conversation. And asking for directions actually works. When we got lost trying to find our hotel in Alaçati and asked a woman sitting on her porch for help, she came out and took us herself (first stopping, of course, to put on her headscarf).

The staff at our moderately-priced hotel in Istanbul spent about 20 minutes with us on our first morning making sure we had maps, tram tokens, restaurant recommendations, and everything else we might need for a successful trip – a level of service you usually have to stay at a luxury hotel to get in the US or western Europe. The hospitality was even more pronounced in Alaçati, where our small hotel was run by a semi-retired chemical engineer and her husband. Her restaurant recommendations were outstanding (dropping her name was like magic), and when her husband discovered we liked wine, he insisted we visit his tiny cellar and try some of his finest Turkish wines.

Experiences like that are rare, and it’s a trip we won’t soon forget.