The Wonderful Variety of Italy

One of the great things about living in Italy is that, within only a few hours’ drive, you can arrive at a place with its own, quite distinct history.  It’s like a whole continent in one country.  Here are some brief notes on four recent destinations.


In June, we spent a few days in Ravenna, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire during much of the 5th Century and the capital of the Byzantine Empire during much of the 6th.  The Romans once based their fleet in the nearby town of Classe; the port is now completely destroyed.

Ravenna is best known today for its remarkable mosaics which are in remarkably good condition despite their great age.  The iconography of the mosaics is quite different from those of medieval cathedrals.  The secular and the religious are mixed together — you can see a depiction of the ancient port of Classe right next to a parade of saints, or the emperor Justinian hard by Cain and Abel.  Jesus, often beardless, is depicted as the Good Shepherd, rather than the crucified savior.


San Vitale, Ravenna

There are more depictions of animals — not just sheep, but ducks, birds, even deer.  And the dominant color is a wonderful marine green, rather than the blue that became more popular later.


San Vitale, Ravenna

There is also a significant difference in style between the earlier and later mosaics.  The late Roman mosaics, like late Roman fresco painting, had figures with vibrant faces and a sense of motion, while the Byzantine mosaics were more stiff and formal.  Sometimes you can see the difference in style in the same church.  In the Basilica of Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, the excited and happy Three Kings (in late Roman style) bring their gifts to a stone-faced Mary (completed 50 years later).

After the Byzantine capital was moved to Constantinople, Ravenna became the peaceful country town it remains today.  It became the last refuge and final resting place of the great poet Dante, whose exile from his home city of Florence was never rescinded during his lifetime.  After his death, the city of Florence, recognizing its mistake, tried to get Dante’s bones back, and even built an elegant tomb for them in the church of Santa Croce.  Nothing doing, said Ravenna, and Dante’s real tomb remains in Ravenna till this day.


In July, we visited the city of Urbino, which had its greatest prominence during the 15th C, under the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro.  Montefeltro was the archetype of the Renaissance prince — a famous condottiere (military leader) as well as a great patron of the arts.  During his 40-year rule, he surrounded himself with a brilliant court, and built many beautiful buildings, including the Ducal Palace, which is today a major art museum.

Palazzo Ducale


The great painter Raphael was born in Urbino, and is represented by a couple of paintings in the museum — most of his major work, though is elsewhere.  The museum also includes several works by the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, one of the first to reintroduce perspective to European art.  I particularly love the Madonna here, with the angel whose carefully drawn pearl anticipates Vermeer, and with the baby Jesus and his incongruously pagan (but contemporaneously accurate) coral necklace — even today Italian babies are given coral necklaces to ward off the “evil eye.”

Piero della Francesca: Senigallia Madonna

Piero della Francesca: Senigallia Madonna

But the real glory of the Ducal Palace are the works of intarsio, or wood inlay.  Intarsio can be found all over Italy, but the examples here are like paintings, almost three-dimensional.  There are depictions of musical instruments, knights’ helmets and architectural tools.  But my favorite is the little squirrel — probably a “red Calabrian,” now almost completely replaced by North American varieties.

Duke's studiolo

Duke’s studiolo – Urbino

Bolzano (Bozen)

The city of Bolzano is in Alto Adige, a region which used to be part of Austria known as Sudtirol.  It was awarded to Italy after World War I.  Nobody ever asked the residents which country they wanted to belong to, and Mussolini’s policy of “Italianization” (encouraging ethnic Italians to move to the region) wasn’t too popular either.  These days, the region operates under a special regional autonomy agreement, and is officially bilingual, with everybody learning both German and Italian.  A lot of the local residents also speak excellent English, which I understand is widely taught in the public schools beginning at a young age.

For the tourist, the region represents a fascinating mix of Austrian and Italian culture — you can get cakes or biscotti, pizza or dumplings.  The photo of a local kiosk indicates the wide variety of food on offer.  It’s also one of Italy’s most interesting wine regions, featuring local grape varietals such as like Lagrein, new grape varietals like Kerner developed for the Alpine region, international varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The town of Termano (Tramin in German) is also reputed to be the origin of the Gewurtztraminer grape.  So if you like wine at all, you’re likely to find something you like here.


But the real glory of the area is its scenery.  Bolzano has a spectacular location at the foot of the Brenner Pass, at the western edge of the Dolomites.  One of the local mountains is called the Rosengarten (Rose Garden) because of the magnificent rose-pink hue it takes on at sunset.


Der Rosengarten / Il Catanaccio

The area is filled with hiking trails at all levels — during the course of a day’s hike, you will enthusiastic young hikers, old people with stout staffs, and families with their children and dogs.  You will also encounter pastured animals — cows, sheep, goats, even the occasional horse, which meant that once in a while, you had to navigate around a cow gate.  And, this being the Alps, at the top of the trail, there’s always a little cafe selling food.


Pork ribs, fries, and beer on top of a mountain. What could be better?

We stayed mostly on the easier trails, helpfully marked with baby prams to indicate they were flat enough for strollers.  Even so, I found that good hiking boots (which I bought here in Ascoli) and walking sticks (thoughtfully provided by our hotel) made a huge difference in navigating the sometimes uneven surfaces.


The scenery was breathtaking — I kept expecting Julie Andrews to come running over the next hillside filling the air with the sound of music.  We heard no yodelers (although we did encounter a couple of tuba players in one restaurant) and no little goatherds (although there was an old guy chivvying the cows along).  All in all, quite a marvelous experience.

Lago di Garda

Garda is Italy’s largest lake, despite the existence of another lake called “Maggiore” (the “biggest”) some distance west.  It is very long, with Alpine terrain in the north and palm trees along the southern edge.

The southeastern part of the lake was part of the territory of Verona in the 14th C, and the towns are dotted with castles built by the Scaligeri, the ruling family.  Sirmione, at the south of the lake, has one of the best-preserved examples of a Scaliger castle.  It also has the ruins of a 1st C Roman estate poetically known as Le Grotte de Catullo.  The Roman poet Catullus did indeed grow near Sirmione, but he was nowhere nears rich enough to live here.  The name of the enormously wealthy family that actually owned the estate has been lost to history.  The estate is a ruin today, of course, but a small museum has preserved some of the floor tiles and frescoes.  Its most remarkable feature, though, is its spectacular site, which has enchanted tourists for centuries.



We also visited Gardone Riviera, on the western shore, which has a wonderful botanical garden (Heller Gardens), full of exotic plants and quirky statuary.

Our Italian friends were nonplussed that we didn’t take the opportunity to visit the house of Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, also in Gardone.  Got to leave something for next time, I guess.  🙂


Sunset over Lago di Garda









Roman Mosaic

We took a short trip to Rome last week, our first extended trip to the capital since we moved to Italy last year.  Although Italy has an extensive train networks, from Ascoli Piceno the quickest way to get to Rome is by intercity bus, through the Appenines via the route of the ancient via Salaria.

Since we had been to Rome before, we decided to concentrate on less-frequently visited sites during this visit.  I have a particular interest in mosaics, an art which flourished in late antiquity and during the medieval period.  Rome has comparatively few monuments during this period — the city’s population declined from 1 million during the imperial period to perhaps 50,000 at the beginning of the 15th C, and didn’t recover until a series of Popes, beginning in the latter half of the 15th C, decided to restore the city to something approaching its former magnificence.  But medieval monuments are there if you know where to look.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the 4 basilicas in Rome administered by the Vatican, has wonderful mosaics dating from both the 5th and 12th Centuries.  Just down the street, the church of Santa Prassede has some fascinating mosaics dating from the 9th C.  The mosaics in both of these churches follow what is known as the “Byzantine” style — no perspective, no individualized faces — but I found them quite lovely.

In the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, there is a wonderful 12th C mosaic of Jesus and Mary in heaven.  Jesus has his arm around Mary (a traditional Byzantine pose) but there was a certain affection in his gaze (unfortunately difficult to see in the photograph).


Santa Maria in Trastevere

At the nearby church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, we saw some frescoes done by the same artist, Pietro Cavallini.  The frescoes are not in the main church — they are in an upstairs room and you have to pay a small admission charge.  I have just enough Italian now to follow the guide’s explanations — good thing, because there were no written captions.  The guide was eager to point out the individualized expressions in the faces of the Apostles — something supposedly invented by Giotto, who worked about 50 years later, and an early harbinger of the Renaissance.

Despite what to us appears as forward-looking artistry, the frescoes were plastered over by a Renaissance-era cardinal, who found them old-fashioned, and only rediscovered during building renovation work in the 1930s.  Portions of the original frescoes have been irretrievably lost — St. Michael, for instance, was identifiable only by his sword and metal breastplate.  But as the fortuitous consequence of not being exposed to the air for several hundred years, the colors are still almost as vibrant as originally intended, without restoration.  No photos were allowed in this room — the picture you see here is scanned from postcards.


Pietro Cavallini: Apostoli from Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (1291)

We took a special tour of the Vatican which began with breakfast in the museum courtyard.  The 2 hours allotted to the Vatican Museum allowed for only the highlights — you could easily spend a whole day there — but it was nice to skip the line and get an early start.  The Sistine Chapel seems to be crowded no matter when you go, and is patrolled by guards who strictly enforce the no-photo rule (photos are allowed elsewhere in the Vatican).  The guards’ other function seems to be to keep people moving, otherwise the number of people too awed to move would quickly create traffic jams in the rest of the museum.  The guards reminded me of the demons in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, prodding along the reluctant souls of the damned with their pitchforks — too bad I can’t post a photo!  You’ll have to settle for a photo of one of the nearby “Raphael rooms”.


Raphael: The School of Athens

I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time in 1970, before the major cleaning project begun in the 1980s, and remember being somewhat disappointed — 400 years of candle smoke had rendered much of the work too dark to see.  The restoration is controversial in some quarters — some people think they took off some of Michelangelo’s paint along with the candle soot.  But you’ll never convince me that these strong, vibrant colors aren’t what Michelangelo intended.

We also saw St. Peter’s on the tour, and I was as underwhelmed by the church as I have been in the past.  I know it’s a minority view, but something about the church’s sheer size (they have marks on the floor showing the limits of “lesser” cathedrals like St. Paul and Notre Dame) seems to me inconsistent with the Church’s spiritual message.  They’ve got some great art in there, though, including Michelangelo’s Pieta.


Michelangelo: Pietà

Interestingly, virtually all of the “paintings” in the church are actually mosaics, although you have to get really close to see that.


A painting-like mosaic in St. Peter’s.

Having seen at least one of Rome’s major sights, we returned to smaller sights for the last couple of days of our trip.

The Palazzo Colonna has been the home of the Colonna family for eight centuries.  These days, part of the Palazzo has been turned into a museum, open only on Saturday mornings, which displays the family’s art collection (Bronzino, Perugino, Carracci….)

Marcantonio Colonna played a big part in the victory of the “Holy League” (Venice, Spain and the Papacy) over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  Colonna lost no time celebrating his victory with a series of magnificent ceiling murals depicting the battle — it’s awesome, but a bit over the top.  The palazzo had another moment of dubious fame in 1849 when some republicans (of the Roman variety) were holed up there, but were later driven out by French (pro-Papal) forces.  A cannon ball which arrived in the gallery at that time has been preserved where it landed.


On our last day, we visited what we thought was a standalone stained glass museum just outside the center.  The museum is actually at the Villa Torlonia, which has the unfortunate distinction of having been Mussolini’s official residence.  The house and grounds fell into disrepair after the war, and in the 1990s the Italian government decided to restore the place into the 19th C aristocratic villa it had originally been.  These days, the main house and several associated buildings feature exhibits of Italian art during the early 20th C.  We were particularly interested in the exhibit devoted to modern theatrical productions at Italy’s ancient Greek theaters, since we had enjoyed a performance at the ancient  theater in Siracusa (Sicily) a few years ago.

The stained glass museum is located in one of the buildings on the grounds, the Casina delle Civette, or Owl House.  This was the home of the last scion of the Torlonia family, who was apparently an unsocial fellow who preferred the company of owls, bats and other birds of the night.  He was, however, also a stained-glass enthusiast, and much of the work here was done by the best Italian stained glass artists of the early 20th C, and it has a particular style, quite different from that of the more familiar French and American stained glass artists working at the same time.  The whole place is worth a visit, if you have the time.

One more note — during an evening tour of Trastevere, our guide pointed out a 19th C building with the Latin inscription — PIUS IX P M OFFICINAM NICOTIANIS FOLIIS ELABORANDIS A SOLO EXTRUXIT ANNO MDCCCLXIII.  The building was Pope Pius IX’s official cigarette rolling factory, built in 1863. In many parts of Europe, even today, the government has a monopoly on tobacco sales, and it has been an important revenue source. These days, though, the Vatican bans the sale of tobacco in its tiny state.


Papal cigarette factory



Shakespeare at the Globe

I mentioned our visit to the Globe Theater in London in my last post, but I thought the performance and the total experience was worth a write-up of its own.

The Globe theater, opened in 1997, is a reconstruction of the Globe Theater that existed in Shakespeare’s day.  It is reasonably faithful to the original design, with certain adjustments for modern fire code regulations.  In keeping with the conditions of Shakespeare’s day, sets are minimal and, at least during the afternoon performances, no artificial lighting is used.  Although some of the seats have backs, we bought bench seats, and rented cushions.  You can also buy “groundling” tickets, which entitle you to stand in front of the stage for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes (you can sit during the intermission).

The acting company is not associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, although many performers are RSC alumni.  All the performers we saw were excellent — theater in England has a really deep bench.

The play we saw was As You Like It which, as Shakespeare fans will know, involves an extended sequence where the main female character, Rosalind, pretends to be a man.  Shakespeare did this a lot, in large part because in his day, all the actors were male — I think he enjoyed having a male actor playing a woman playing a man.  In this performance, the company cast a tall man as Rosalind, and a short woman as Orlando.  Some lines in the play work surprisingly well for a male Rosalind — the part where Rosalind says “I am more than uncommon tall,” for example, or the epilogue, where Rosalind addresses the audience with, “If I were a woman.”  Obviously there were no such lines for the gender-bending Orlando.

The gender-switching continued with other members of the cast — both Dukes were played by a woman, and the silly shepherdess Audrey was played by man.  Interestingly, while the man playing Audrey was in full Dame Edna drag — big hair, heavy makeup, big fake boobs — the actor playing Rosalind was very understated.  When appearing as Rosalind, he wore a dress and, in certain scenes, a veil.  But he wore no special makeup or hair, and there was no cleavage.   It seemed to me that they were intentionally emphasizing the androgynous nature of the Rosalind character.  Indeed, since in the play Orlando spends more time with the “male” Rosalind than the “female” one, it’s not clear which one he’s actually in love with.

I thought the artistic choices were well considered, and the whole performance was very successful.  Best of all, the ensemble comedy scenes were very well done, a lot more like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions I enjoy every year than some of the starchy British productions I have been subjected to in the past.

If you’re in London during the summer and enjoy Shakespeare, the Globe is well worth a visit.

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.



Christmas in Ascoli Piceno

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


Piazza del Popolo


… with Christmas decorations and antique market


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

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


Piazza Arringo, with Cattedrale in the rear … market day


… with the local Bersaglieri band.

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

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








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


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


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


Ascoli, looking over the Tronto


…. with snowy wintertime Apennines in the distance

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


Teatro Ventidio Basso

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


Cupra Marittima



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


Gozzoli fresco of St. Jerome

So Near and Yet So Far (Japan)

October 2013

Additional photos can be found here.

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

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


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

A Maiko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not Easy Being Green (Ireland)

June 2013

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

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Ladies and a Holy Land (Israel)

May 2013

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

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

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Tel Aviv/Jaffa

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nazareth / Galilee

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

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

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

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

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

Food and Drink

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

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

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

Sabattical in Italy

September 2012

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

More photos of our trip can be found here.

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

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

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

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

Best Laid Plans

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

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

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

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

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

Regatta Storico

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

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

Regatta Storico - Bucintoro

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

Regatta Storico - Mascaretas

Camera Mishap Survived

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

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

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

Venetian Horses

Another Day, Another Country

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

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

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

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


Food Glorious Food

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

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

And of course, porcini season is just beginning.

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

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


In the House of Giants

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

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

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

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


Justinian Time

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

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

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

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

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

Small Towns, Big History

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

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

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

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

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

Brief trip to the US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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